When A Big Idea Visits You (Kumbh Mela In India)

By on May 3, 2013
Kumbh Mela

I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganga – astronomy, astrology, spiritualism, etc. It is very important to note that some 2500 years ago at the least, Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganga to learn geometry.

  …………. Francis M. Voltaire

The maha kumbh mela, on the banks of river Ganga (/ Ganges), arguably the largest ‘event show’ on planet earth just came to an end (on 03/10/2013). Near 140 million people had come, stayed and left over the 55 day event period. On days of specific significance, data indicates +30 million people congregating over a 32 sq km area (that’s ~1 mm people/ 1 sq km).  Truly an incredible spectacle drawing people from all walks of life and pressing into action delivery of goods, services and an organisational design effort that could possibly compete for being the most complex event of all times – spanning all areas of utilities, security, sanitation, hygiene, communications, logistics, transportation, help desks etc. (Interesting to recollect also, is that, the legendary Steve Jobs spent ~7 months introspecting on the banks of river Ganges, during his sojourn in 1974…).

Sitting squashed on a small crowded returning manual boat with +80 people, post a 5 hour effort of reaching to the three rivers confluence point (sangam) for taking the dip (which is the central feature of kumbh mela), one is but compelled to reflect on what this unimaginable, incredibly bizarre and patterned chaos is all about. And even louder are questions and answers simultaneously that are suggestive of the actionable insights and learning’s for brand managers and business professionals (let alone the quest of the spiritual seekers). The gleaming reflections of the setting sun in the rippling waters on the background of an awe inspiring panoramic sky, aids the contemplativeness to a residual calm and purposeful certainty of the real world biz involving brands, organizations and people, who are at the helm of these either as students of creation or as leaders/ captains persuasively striving to embellish their leadership charters. The whole experience offers a seek-learn-feel event for the curious, and is replete with learning’s and insights on brands, sales, distribution, communication, logistics, operations management, compliance and people leadership. Ergo, here are some reflections that I felt are worth logging more from the perspective of life systems and Org behaviour (than mass scale planning aspects for now): 

BackgroundFor the uninitiated to the Kumbh Mela, here is a quick overview:

  • Is the largest congregation of people on earth at anytime and witnesses as many as 140 million people from all walks of life, including hollywood & bollywood celebrities, noble laureates, quantum physicists, political leaders, dalai lama and many other global gurus. 
  • Is a potpourri of nirvanic seekers who come to the point of confluence (sangam) of the three rivers (Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati) for a holy dip. The potpourri is truly that –  it spans the bold and the beautiful, the fragrant and filthy, the divine and the devil, rich and poor, old and young (including children and infants), men and women, the corporate variety and trader variety, scholars and illiterates…naked sadhus, smoking sadhus, stoned sadhus, silent sadhus (that never talk), the gurus, the philosophers, the priests, the tantrics, the babas, the yoginis, the atheists, the beggars, the monks, the teachers, the bards, the singers, the painters, the artists etc etc…  and also the curious. 
  • It dates back to the millennia and occurs in 12-year cycles. The millions arrive on the banks of river Ganga (Ganges) solely on their own volition and not basis any persuasion, advertisement, constraints or force of any kind. The only force that motivates them to the Sangam (union of 3 rivers) is possibly Moksha (or Nirvana/ Liberation) – to merge with the ‘Supreme Truth’ if not of just wanting to be a part of this unique spectacle. 
  • It’s said that the Kumbh (urn) came about from the churning of the sea by demons and gods alike for the nectar of immortality. But before that bliss was reached, many other things came up in the process including poison, and learning to deal with poison (in life) was/ is needed at all times (that’s another story for another time and possibly Indiana Jones can explain the same better in one of his future magnum opus). 
  • There is also a logic deduced from earth and moon that journey together in cycles. Human life is believed to be also cyclical by many who come here. These cycles can remain as cycles of bondage or they can become a means of transcendence –from one cycle of life to another – sounds like google + with its circles in making… and likely to emerge as the numero uno ahead). 
  • And last but not the least, to borrow renowned Jaggi Vasudev’s description – Kumbh Melas are held at specific spots in the country around which a whole energy system was created. Because the earth is spinning, it creates a centrifugal force. From 0 to 33 degrees latitude, this force is largely working in a vertical manner in your system, and particularly at 11 degrees, the energies are shooting straight up. So, the ancients calculated and marked out points on the planet where there is a supportive influence on people. Many points happen to be confluences of rivers and there is a benefit to bathing in those areas. If one is at that spot on a particular day, rare possibilities become available, so people move there to benefit from this.

I had first visited the kumbh mela in 2001 as a marketing manager of a Fortune 500 MNC food company and on specific brand marketing objectives. Earlier having spent long years in Japan and having travelled extensively across Asia and North America, it had made me significantly appreciative of diversity (but personally did not prefer diversity matters having overt origins in religious faith and principles – as was/ is too complex and sig difficult to handle at daily work). What followed/ happened in 2001 was an incredible and unassailable experience, nothing short of having been hit by a speeding truck – The first 10 minutes post landing at the kumbh mela spot was a cataclysmic revelation of sociological, psychological and anthropological rationales, prompting a spontaneous and deep inner rethink on brands, individual and organizational structural interplays on who, what, why, how, when etc and about DNA itself. I made some notes that night and vowed to return again to the next kumbh mela (which comes once every 12 years) – but some basic questions that I had experienced as part of new product development & brand building (near 8 years ago then) at P&G just came alive – specifically as who am I?  what do I do, how am I different(iated) and, why buy me? – questions that typically are posed as rules to arrive at the product logic,  the brand DNA and the appropriate marketing strategy thereof  –  and the answers for which evolve depending on consumer habits, practices, usage and attitudes  –  essentially  elements of belief systems 

Apropos, there are a set of common triggers spanning individual belief systems, values, purposes, aspirations, goal seeking and other meta-behaviours that brands and organisations can draw relevant parallels, for their employees and customers. The relevance to imbibe the same to brand proposition logic(s) and on day-day frameworks of working place environments is worth pondering about. To elaborate: 

Key points:

1.  There is always a need to have a significant purpose at both the individual and organizational level, at all times. And the purpose ordains well when it is founded on principles and values that stand the test of times.  Great organisations go the mile to define and deploy this to a sharp framework for ‘power of people’ to emerge.

  • Despite several geographical, social and political disruptions over the years, the basic ethos of the kumbh mela (which is the spiritual process) has survived. Many a brand, organization, country and civilization have faded away for this very reason or have ascribed to product life cycle theories and rationalizations – while in essence their founding principles, values and purposes have got altered either by choice or for external reasons such as competition (and strategic choices made have likely not measured up).
  • Living a life filled with purpose is a self propelling motivator by itself and more so in (large) organizations. Any organization that has such a shared purpose is on auto pilot mode for growth, great team play and happy employees –  as most are now participating in the whole act of creation and feel the creativity (than as mundane chores) –   regardless of whether s/he is from procurement, marketing, research, finance, etc.

2.  It is important for both Individuals and organizations to identify and periodically ascertain their core beliefs for ‘power of mind’ to emerge:  

  • Studies in social psychology have taught us that beliefs have their roots in culture, experiences, education, family heritage and organization memberships. Ergo when a hollywood celebrity or a noble laureate or a sadhu all share a common belief system or seek a common cause of understanding they do spontaneously merge into the same plain of a larger organization-belief system, propelling like minded beliefs, strengths and power of mind. 
  • Imagine the benefits to any organization where blue collar, white collar workers, executive management and board all belong to such a large and shared belief system – with a commonality of purpose, and consensus on the definition of success. This surely will be without comparisons in the corporate world. Productivity gains is but just the tip of the iceberg, but more importantly the foundations of creating joy at work place is very much a possibility for many and not just a select few –  and joyous workers can truly conceive and build/ create anything… (aka apple?). Recall In early 1990’s few large Japanese conglomerates were attempting this and met with transient success, whence the concept of bio-organizations was gaining prominence

3.  Long for the best/ highest that is to be  and to become the best – Seeking to become a master professional is a great way to stay inspired and create the road map for lifelong learning and achievements   

  •  There is infinite power in the idea of seeking the best, and when this is manifested with a meta idea, possibilities do become manifold – for faith has been created and custodians have emerged. The naga sadhus pursue this in their own (non materialistic) way, wedded to the larger logic of achieving the ultimate truth. And at some levels it appears both Richard Gere and the naked sadhus are working on same and in their own chosen ways.
  • Many a brand custodian and organization chieftains know quite well the challenges in seeking to define and execute the best, given the inter dependencies of functional stakeholders and the will to remain wedded to the larger meta idea. The onus is one of creating the meta idea for all to stay inspired and achievement oriented for power of leadership to emerge.

4.  The power of an idea to come cannot be substituted by anything nor compromised. Meta ideas gather meta minds and give more power to the people, the organizations and the ecosystems at large 

  •  The kumbh is a meta idea and is all about discovering the absolute truth. The difference is only in the method or path to reach and even god here is a stepping stone for that. For truth is above all. Reminded of Michael Sandel’s book titled ‘Justice’ as it makes compulsive reading to understand what is the right thing to do and what works best for the common good? And then leadership too is all about doing the right things, in the right way at the right time… right? But is this all possible at all without a meta idea… lest everyone have his own rationalizations of their respective rights and wrongs and create their own free-markets enterprises based on meta ideas or autocratic pol pot type regimes based on fear, killing free thinking, large(r) ideas and people at large.
  • It is no surprise why great organizations attract great if not superior minds. Just as monies gain velocity where they get bang for buck, goods get produced in nations where there are comparative advantages, talent migrates to nations that allows them freedom and justice, minds get merged with large ideas that proffer meta-ness. Ergo important for leaders and organizations to be on the lookout for powerful and meta ideas at all times – and not necessarily new ideas only.

5.  It helps to seek unity in diversity – to constantly spark new ideas and innovations and progress to larger goals.

  • Indian culture is significantly complex and colourful. Diversity hits you instantly as  can’t but notice how different people look, dress, talk, eat, sing, laugh and become silent  –  myriad languages and dialects, +1000 types foods, diverse music and dances –  both fast and slow,  and just about everything keeps changing as you move along –  the sights, sounds, colors and moods. It is for sure one the most incredible sights in the world. What is this hubris? At kumbh all this comes alive at one place and you experience not just the complexity of this culture but life itself – It’s not just about bathing in the river. Diverse people have been meeting like this for thousands of years, sharing ideas and exchanging information. It’s likely the diverse music, foods, sounds, thoughts and nuances have all emerged as new ideas and innovations, while allowing for identities to merge in unity. People arrive in millions to celebrate this merging even as they continue their search. 
  • Brands and more specifically umbrella brands have the challenge to speak relevantly to large cross sections of people – ranging from daily wage workers to top corporate executives. Few brands do this well, while most strive to do so, adding to marketing expenses as they go along. How can they do so if they do not have a unified customer understanding carved out of diversity and merging to a singular point. Just a parallel that comes alive here 

In sum, the kumbh mela is a learning experience to say the least. It also provides for varied lessons in mass-scale planning, disaster management, rapid urbanization models of emerging markets and of building transient cities – drawing resources and supports from telecom, police, makeshift hospitals, drinking water, sewage systems etc.” But above all is an incredible journey in the realm of self discovery and intimate social relations (of past and present) while searching for the larger algorithm of truth, purpose and beliefs. Overall, one can’t but wonder whether Steve Jobs discovered the power of intuition here or was it the other way –  did the power of intuition discover Steve jobs?



About Subba Rao NV

Subbarao is an entrepreneur, management professional and a hands-on business leader with +20 years exp in consumer goods, tele-communications, wireless applications/ solutions and retail sectors, where he has handled large teams and multi unit businesses. Earlier he held VP- Sales & Marketing, COO/ CEO/ Apex positions at TATA Docomo, Bharti Airtel, Tanla Solutions and Conagra Foods (India). Having started at P&G as a management trainee, he has worked and led over 25 brands. Over the years he has lived and worked in different geographies including US, Japan and Vietnam, while holding p&l and growth responsibilities for market & value share leadership. In 2012 Co-founded Reboot Systems (India), a refurbished computers business - set up the brand, business and retail/ franchisee store model. After successfully exiting same (03/2015), is working to launch and establish his next start up - www.myfirstbigjob.com ( a platform based integrated 'jobs-skills one stop portal - presently in development stage'), to find a way out of skill-gap issues and to address the problems of skill-divide. Subbarao is also a member of Hyderabad Angels and a charter member of TIE and in his spare time runs a blog called best matters. [ www.cocreate.subbaraonv.com/ email: subba@subbaraonv.com ]

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